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Issue 8, 2007
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Environmental concerns of desalinating seawater using reverse osmosis

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This Critical Review on environmental concerns of desalination plants suggests that planning and monitoring stages are critical aspects of successful management and operation of plants. The site for the desalination plants should be selected carefully and should be away from residential areas particularly for forward planning for possible future expansions. The concerning issues identified are noise pollution, visual pollution, reduction in recreational fishing and swimming areas, emission of materials into the atmosphere, the brine discharge and types of disposal methods used are the main cause of pollution. The reverse osmosis (RO) method is the preferred option in modern times especially when fossil fuels are becoming expensive. The RO has other positives such as better efficiency (30–50%) when compared with distillation type plants (10–30%). However, the RO membranes are susceptible to fouling and scaling and as such they need to be cleaned with chemicals regularly that may be toxic to receiving waters. The input and output water in desalination plants have to be pre and post treated, respectively. This involves treating for pH, coagulants, Cl, Cu, organics, CO2, H2S and hypoxia. The by-product of the plant is mainly brine with concentration at times twice that of seawater. This discharge also includes traces of various chemicals used in cleaning including any anticorrosion products used in the plant and has to be treated to acceptable levels of each chemical before discharge but acceptable levels vary depending on receiving waters and state regulations. The discharge of the brine is usually done by a long pipe far into the sea or at the coastline. Either way the high density of the discharge reaches the bottom layers of receiving waters and may affect marine life particularly at the bottom layers or boundaries. The longer term effects of such discharge concentrate has not been documented but it is possible that small traces of toxic substances used in the cleaning of RO membranes may be harmful to marine life and ecosystem. The plants require saline water and thus the construction of input and discharge output piping is vital. The piping are often lengthy and underground as it is in Tugun (QLD, Australia), passing below the ground. Leakage of the concentrate via cracks in rocks to aquifers is a concern and therefore appropriate monitoring quality is needed. Leakage monitoring devices ought to be attached to such piping during installation. The initial environment impact assessment should identify key parameters for monitoring during discharge processes and should recommend ongoing monitoring with devices attached to structures installed during construction of plants.

Graphical abstract: Environmental concerns of desalinating seawater using reverse osmosis

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Article information

14 Dec 2006
11 Jun 2007
First published
27 Jun 2007

J. Environ. Monit., 2007,9, 805-813
Article type
Critical Review

Environmental concerns of desalinating seawater using reverse osmosis

G. A. Tularam and M. Ilahee, J. Environ. Monit., 2007, 9, 805
DOI: 10.1039/B708455M

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